ST. NORBERT: FOUNDER of CANONS REGULAR of PREMONTRE
1080 – 1134
Norbert was born in Xanten in the duchy of Cleves, Germany in 1080 to a wealthy family of distinguished origins. His father, Heribert was Count of Gennep and related to the emperor as his mother Hedwig of Guise was from the house of Lorraine. Related thus to the German imperial house he led a pleasure – seeking and worldly life as an almoner at the court of Emperor Henry V.
To obtain financial benefit and to ensure his success at court he accepted minor religious orders as Canon in the church of St. Victor at Xanten and even as subdeacon. Thus Norbert though never a bad person exploited the church for his own profit as he was content to devote the early part of his life to the world and its pleasures.
One day at age 33 as he was riding across the countryside his horse was startled when a bolt of lightning in a violent thunderstorm almost hit them. Thrown to the ground where he lay unconscious for nearly an hour Norbert awoke to the fateful words of the Lord to St. Paul on his way to Damascus. Timidly Norbert asked, “Lord, what wilt thou have me do?” An inner voice replied, “Turn from evil and do good; seek after peace and pursue it.”
So this is what Norbert did as his accident had been the occasion of his conversion. He became a sincere penitent reforming his life by adopting a rigorous life of prayer, fasting and meditation. A retreat he made in the monastery of St. Sigebert completed his conversion. He then studied for the priesthood, which he had steadfastly avoided in the past. He was ordained at Cologne in 1155. As a changed man, Norbert tried to reform his brother canons at the Chapter of Xanten but they resented this, persecuted and ridiculed him. He was denounced as a hypocrite at the Council of Fritzlar in 1188 for his extreme ascetism and unauthorized preaching without a license.
In disgust he re-assigned his canonry, gave all his possessions to the poor to prove the sincerity of his intentions and wandered barefoot and penniless to St. Giles in France. On a visit of penance to Pope Gelasius II he traveled barefoot in the snow and made a public confession to him. In return the Pope gave him permission to preach the gospel wherever he wanted. So Norbert became an itinerant preacher in northern France. He was even credited with performing some miracles. Soon he became known as the most famous missionary of his time.He was also called the “Apostle of Eucharist” because of his zealous preaching and vigorous stand against heresy, which denied that Christ was in the Eucharist.
In 1112, after being given a grant of land at Premontre, Laon from the Bishop there, Norbert founded his order The Premonstratensian Canons. This monastic order was also called “White Canons” after their white vestments. Norbert also founded was a second Order for women and the Confraternity of the White Scapular. The white Canons quickly spread all over Western Europe especially in Hungary. Pope Honorious II officially approved their constitutions in 1125.
Then in 1126 Emperor Lothair chose Norbert as archbishop of Magdebourg, Germany in recognition of his services as a reconciler. Though now a bishop, Norbert still lived the austere life, which he had set up for his order. Unfortunately soon after consecration he fell ill and after four months of sickness died at the age of fifty-three on June 6, 1134.
He was canonized in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII. His shrine at Magdebourg became famous for many miracles. He was proclaimed Patron and Protector of Bohemia (Czechoslovakia) because 600 Protestants of Magdebourg became reconciled to the church when his body was transferred to Prague in 1627.
His relics are now resting in the abbey of Strahov in Bohemia.
SOURCES of REFERENCE: Butler’s Lives of the Saints – Vol. II – pp 484-487; Saints for Our Time – pp 121-123; Saints of the Day – pp 131 – 132; Voices of the Saints – pp 342-343; and others.